Danse nocturne avec un Hibou
Danse nocturne avec un Hibou (Bloch 936)

1959 (November 18.II, Cannes)

Linocut printed in two colors on Arches wove  with Arches watermark
One of four artist's proofs of the second (final) state, outside the edition of 50
Marina Picasso Collection oval stamp on verso 
Printed by Arnéra, 1960
Published by Galerie Louise Leiris, 1960
Image: 21x 25 3/8 inches 
Sheet: 24 1/2 x 29 5/8 inches 
Framed: 32 x 36 inches
(Bloch 936) (Baer 1256.II.A)

Printed in dark tan ink on a solid black background, this unusual linocut print presents the scene of a bacchanale taking place at night, as is testified by its nocturnal witness—an owl. Perched on a stick-like branch on the left side of the image, the owl looks down on five figures who combine the human with the animal in a celebration of masculine power. This is indicated by the long curving horns and enlarged genitals of the goat standing directly below the tree, in oppositional balance with the figure of the flutist on the right side of the image. This figure’s goat hooves and the double flute he plays suggests that he is the satyr Marsyas, a figure from Greek mythology said to be an expert player on the double-piped reed instrument known as the aulos, creating music to accompany Dionysian revelries. So confident was Marsyas of his skill that he challenged Apollo to a contest (in one version of the tale) but lost the contest and was flayed alive by the jealous god, a fitting punishment for daring to challenge a god. However, he was also admired for his intelligence and recast by the Romans as a proponent of free speech. Picasso may well have identified with this complex combination of attributes and skills, very much as he identified with the owl—a creature that features repeatedly in his work.

 

Roland Penrose, Picasso’s lifelong friend and biographer, has written of the importance that the owl had for the artist: ‘Owls and doves, two birds of such different nature, were his lifelong companions. They both had significance for him which bordered on superstition. The owl with its rounded head and piercing stare seems to resemble Picasso himself.’i The owl’s appearance in Picasso’s work dates from his earliest print, El Zurdo (1899), in which this bird is found at the picador’s feet. During his stay in Antibes during the late 1940s, an injured owl was brought to the artist and, after repairing its damaged foot, he kept it with him and began ‘once more to be fascinated by its strange aloof behavior and to introduce it into his paintings, his lithographs and later his ceramics’.ii This pet owl was christened Ubu, partly out of assonance with the French word for owl hibou, and partly after the obnoxious hero of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi. As grumpy as his namesake, this little owl apparently provoked the artist to win his confidence: ‘[Picasso] used to stick his fingers between the bars of the cage and the owl would bite him … Finally the owl would let him scratch his head and gradually he came to perch on his finger instead of biting it.’iii Picasso himself was something of a night-owl when it came to making art. Ten years later, at the time he created Danse nocturne avec un hibou, ‘he told how once, while he was painting at night, a large [owl] flew in at the window and after battering itself against the glass, perched on top of the canvas on which he was at work. It had come, he thought, to prey on his pigeons that flew at liberty from the terrace outside the window during the day.’iv

 

A fearsome nocturnal predator, the owl historically embodies many contradictory attributes including the insightful and perceptive wisdom of the ancient Greek goddess Pallas Athene (Minerva) and the blind folly of the Medaeval fool. It is also associated with the vanitas and death. In Danse nocturne avec un hibou, the owl is a frowning witness to the wild antics of the three (apparently male) figures in the center of the image who cavort on goats’ hooves like those of the Marsyas figure to their left. Just as the owl here symbolizes the artist’s ever-watchful gaze, the goat—another significant figure in Picasso’s work—is associated with animal lust, fertility, vitality and ceaseless energy. The bacchanale itself is a theme that Picasso returned to with particular interest after his relocation to the south of France after the end of the Second World War, with his young mistress, the beautiful artist Françoise Gilot (born 1921). After the breakdown of their relationship and their definitive split in 1953, Picasso moved to a villa named La Californie in Cannes with his new lover, eventual second wife and last great muse, Jacqueline Roque (1927-86) in spring 1955. Here he was able to reaffirm his love of life and the sunny Mediterranean inspired not only by an attractive new mistress, but also by a new print medium—that of linocut. Having discovered the workshop of Hidalgo Arnéra (1922-2007) in the nearby village of Vallauris, Picasso was able to speed up his printing processes by working locally instead of having to send his plates to and from Paris for printing. During the early 1950s he experimented with linocut making posters to advertise local arts and crafts fairs and bullfights, but it was not until the end of the decade that a new intensive period of technical development began, of which Danse nocturne avec un hibou is an early example.

 

This impression is one of four artist’s proofs of the second (final) state printed on Arches wove paper by Arnéra in 1960. A signed and numbered edition of 50 was also printed in 1960 by Arnéra and published by Galerie Louise Leiris that year. The impression derives from the collection of Arnéra; it is annotated "Linogravure de Picasso - 296 - Bacchanale - 1959. H. Arnéra" at the lower left, in pencil.

 

 

i Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London 1958, pp.360-1.
ii ibid, p.360.
iii Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, London 1990, p.140.
iv Penrose, p.361.